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Then Attorney General Jeff Sessions announces charges against Chinese hackers. Photo: Zach Gibson/Getty Images

Under departing Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Department of Justice took a harder line against cyberespionage, particularly by China, than it ever had before. But experts say the offensive against China's theft of billions of dollars in intellectual property is likely to continue under the new acting attorney general, Matt Whitaker.

The big picture: Press coverage is spotlighting the impact Session's' departure may have on the Mueller investigation. But the DOJ is a big machine with many moving parts, and a change at the top could affect any or all of them.

The background: On Tuesday of last week, the U.S. announced the indictments of 10 Chinese spies and collaborators for hacking aerospace firms to steal intellectual property for the benefit of Chinese industry. On Thursday the U.S. indicted three more Chinese citizens and two companies for similar charges related to computer chips.

  • These were the third and fourth sets of indictments since September against China's IP theft rings.
  • The aggressiveness spanned to other countries, too. The U.S. filed its first-ever charges against a North Korean agent in September for his role in the Sony Pictures hack and Wannacry malware outbreak.

Where it stands: The aggressive policy is likely to continue under new DOJ leadership.

The cause and effect: Part of why Sessions was the first attorney general to go on a cyberespionage indictment spree was simple chronology.

  • The Obama administration indicted members of the Chinese Army for economic espionage in 2015 around the time Presidents Obama and Xi reached an agreement for China to stop stealing intellectual property via hacking.
  • That worked, briefly, meaning the Obama administration didn't have to go all in on a DOJ strategy. But when Trump took office, China cranked up the hacking again. That's when Sessions' department went full bore.
  • "This is a multiyear process. It was the logical flow from the 2015 indictments," said John Carlin, former Assistant Attorney General for the National Security Division and current partner at Morrison & Foerster.

The leadership structure: The head of the DOJ doesn't unilaterally set department policy — priorities ultimately flow from the White House.

  • The China strategy appears to be part of a coordinated effort across the executive branch. While the DOJ released indictments on Tuesday and Thursday last week, on Monday the Department of Commerce released sanctions against China related to IP theft.
  • "From the outside, it didn’t appear that AG Sessions was the driving force behind DoJ’s more aggressive stance on cybersecurity related issues," Michel Daniel, former White House cybersecurity coordinator under Obama and current president and CEO of the Cyber Threat Alliance, wrote in an email.

Go deeper

Updated 5 hours ago - Politics & Policy

1 dead after pickup truck hits Pride spectators in Florida

Police investigate the scene where a pickup truck drove into a crowd of people at a Pride parade in Wilton Manors, Florida, on Saturday. Photo: Jason Koerner/Getty Images

A driver in a pickup truck hit spectators at a Pride festival in Wilton Manors, Florida, killing a man and leaving another person hospitalized Saturday, authorities said.

Details: Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis told reporters police had "apprehended the driver" and that the vehicle missed a parade car carrying Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) "by inches."

Updated 8 hours ago - Sports

Uganda Olympic team member tests positive for COVID in Tokyo

The Uganda National boxing team's Catherine Nanziri (L) and others arrive for check-in at Entebbe international airport in Wakiso, Uganda on Friday, ahead of their departure to participate in the Tokyo Olympic Games. Photo: Badru Katumba/AFP via Getty Images

A Uganda Olympic team member tested positive for COVID-19 upon arrival in Japan late Saturday, officials said.

Why it matters: Japan's government has faced criticism for vowing to host the Tokyo Games next month as coronavirus cases rise. The Ugandan team is the second to arrive in Japan after the Australian women's softball players, and this is the first COVID-19 infection detected among the Olympic athletes, Al Jazeera notes.

Updated 12 hours ago - World

In photos: Brazilians rally against Bolsonaro as COVID deaths top 500,000

A June 19 protest in São Paulo, Brazil, against the administration of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who has railed against precautionary health measures despite the soaring COVID-19 death rate and cases. Photo: Rodrigo Paiva/Getty Images

Demonstrators took to the streets in at least 22 of Brazil’s 26 states to protest President Jair Bolsonaro's handling of the pandemic — as deaths from COVID-19 in the country surged past 500,000 Saturday, per AP.

The big picture: Brazil has the world's second-highest coronavirus death toll and third-highest number of reported cases. Only 12% of the country's population has been vaccinated against the virus, AP notes.

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